The Jews of Russia

In authoritarian states, a little breath of freedom can be a dangerous thing.

This at least is the conclusion that Tsar Alexander III came to after his father, the relatively liberal Alexander II – who’d flirted with reform and freed Russia’s serfs – was assassinated by student radicals.

The new Tsar, his son Alexander III, decided to silence all possible dissent from all possible malcontents. This meant not only political trouble-makers but also national minorities including the Jews.

There was no visible direct connection between the assassins of the Tsar and the Jews, but one of the conspirators, Nikolai Sablin, had had a pregnant Jewish girlfriend called Gesya Gelfman.

Russia already had a difficult relationship with the Jewish minority it had taken on when, in one of the many redrawings of the European map, it had gained part of Poland where many Jews lived. Jews under Russian rule were confined to the poor and overcrowded small towns of the southern area known as the Pale of Settlement (unless they were rich, or had a specialized trade that would get them a work permit for other parts of Russia). Jews were not allowed the same civil rights as other citizens of Russia. They were often persecuted. That some Jews responded by joining various kinds of protest movements was attributed by the state to their innate troublesomeness.

Although there was never – quite – a policy of official anti-Semitism in Russia, Alexander III’s reign saw a sharp rise in the scapegoating of, and violence against, Jews, led by the fiercely anti-Semitic Black Hundreds grouping. This was tolerated, and often encouraged, by police and officialdom happy to channel Russian citizens’ many discontents with their over-supervised lives into suspicion of the Jews. Anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, became widespread. So did Jewish emigration. The 1897 said more than five million Jews lived in the Russian empire, 94% of them in the Pale of Settlement. From 1880-1928, more than two million emigrated, mostly to America, but also to Europe, South America, Canada, Palestine, South Africa and Australia.

Among those who emigrated was Menachem Mendel Beilis, a Jew who, as a middle-aged father of five working as superintendent at a brick factory in Kiev, was accused of ritual murder in a notorious trial. In 1911, Beilis was said to have kidnapped and killed a local boy and drained his blood to make Passover matzos. The case was an obvious nonsense, but Beilis was imprisoned for the two years it took to come to trial. His courageous refusal to admit guilt or implicate other Jews prevented an all-out pogrom, but the case provoked several near-riots (including the one I have my fictional Inna escaping from at the start of MIDNIGHT). A mass of forged and fraudulent police and expert evidence was only dismissed after liberals in all Russia’s big centres came together to fight for the clearly innocent accused. On being cleared, Beilis and his family quickly moved to Palestine, where he struggled to make ends meet, then in 1921 to America, where he died in 1934 and was buried in Queens, NY.



Jews who stayed were likelier than the average Russian to join one of the many revolutionary parties springing up despite official bans and discouragement. Some preferred the Bund or Jewish working men’s movement, a kind of trade union for Jews, preaching secularism and encouraging the view that emigrating was a cop-out and that Russian Jews should stay and fight for equal rights. Like many other socialist groups, the Bund was at first against the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. But Bundists, forced to choose the lesser of two evils, were prompted by the open anti-Semitism of the Whites in the Civil War that broke out after 1917 to embrace the Red Bolsheviks instead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, this was not the end of the persecution of the Jews in Russia.

Press reports from a pogrom in 1881

Here’s an example, from the Jewish Chronicle of May 6, 1881, of what one pogrom looked like from close up.

May 6, 1881, The Jewish Chronicle, 
Page 11 Outrages upon Jews in Russia  [Reuters Telegrams] St. Petersburg, April 20 Serious disturbances having their origin in the superstition of the peasantry regarding the Jewish Passover rites, have occurred at Elizabethgrad in the province of Kherson.   The popular excitement against the Jews led to an attack upon the synagogue which was destroyed by the mob.  The aid of the military was called in to repress the disturbance, and a large number of the rioters were killed by the troops. St. Petersburg, Sunday. An official account of the anti-Jewish riot at Elizabethgrad on the 27th ult. states that some houses inhabited by Jews and several public houses belonging to members of that faith, were attacked and pillaged by the populace.  The disturbances continued until the morning of the 29th ult., when order was reestablished.  One Jew was killed and several other persons were seriously injured by the rioters.  The authorities have instituted a strict investigation into the circumstances.

St. Petersburg, May 2. Official intelligence from Odessa of yesterday’s date announces that 400 persons have been arrested for taking part in the excesses against the Jews at Elizavetgrad last week.   One hundred houses were pillaged, a quantity of furniture being thrown into the streets.  Two hundred people were injured during the riots.  Order has been restored, but the town is still patrolled by detachments of infantry.  At the request of the Town Council the fair which was to be held shortly at Elizabethgrad has been indefinitely postponed.

The following details have been telegraphed by the Odessa correspondent of the Times : Since my telegram to you of yesterday stating that anti-Jewish riots had broken out at Elizabethgrad, a town of about 40,000 inhabitants, situated in the government [province of Kherson, the following particulars have been published here upon the authority of Prince Dondonkoff-Kornakoff, the provincial governor general of Odessa.  The disturbance commenced at 4 PM last Wednesday, and the contents of several Jews shops were stolen damaged or destroyed.  The police called in the aid of the troops, who made every effort to stop the pillaging.  This was however, only effected on the following evening, and with great difficulty on account of the number of Peasants who had flocked into the town from the surrounding villages to participate in the general plunder.  During the night of the 28th inst. there arrived at Elizabethgrad three squadrons of Uhlans and yesterday a battalion of infantry.  One Jew was killed, but the number of wounded is not great.  

In a later telegram the correspondent states that at Elizabethgrad things have remained quiet ever since the anti-Jewish riots.  These were quelled last Thursday evening.  It appears that 400 persons were arrested.  The rioting arose out of a dispute between some Christians and Jews.  The quarrel led to a general fight, which according to the Elizabethgrad Vestnik, assumed a more serious nature upon revolver shots being fired from some Jewish houses.  The Christians then attacked the houses and shops of the Jews indiscriminately by smashing doors, breaking windows, &c., up until a late hour on Wednesday night.  The violence was continued throughout Thursday, but in a different form.   The Jews, finding themselves vanquished, offered no further resistance and all fighting ceased; but the rioters, aided by an influx of peasants from the surrounding villages to join in the general melee, sacked the houses of the Jews, destroyed their furniture, and stole or spoiled there wares.   The military and police are represented as having done what they could to establish order, but failed to do so at once, because while they were attempting that in one place, disorder was breaking out in another.  The Jewish population of Elizabethgrad is reckoned at about 10,000 persons and more than half their houses are completely ruined.

A Reuters telegram states that on the 1st inst. two battallions of troops were dispatched from Kieff by General Drentein, the Govenor General, to Smels and Korsumm to quell disturbances caused at those places by excesses against the Jewish inhabitants.   At Uman, Schpola, and Letin the Jews are also threatened by the populace, but energetic measures have been taken by the authorities to protect them. It being feared that disturbances similar to those that have lately taken place at Elizavetgrad and Olviopol might occur at various towns in the province of Kieff and Kameneta Jodoisk, General Dronteln, the Governor, has sent troops in all directions to protect the Jews and prevent disorder.  The Golos lays the blame for the Judenhetze in South Russia on the anomalous position of the Jews whose disabilities effectually prevent their absorption by the rest of the population and compel them to have recourse to usury and huckstering in order to gain a livelihood.

The Vienna correspondent of the Daily Telegraph telegraphed on Wednesday night: A gentleman who passed through Vienna yesterday on his way home from the Far East, via Baku, Tiflis, and Charkoff, assured me that the agitation against the Jews in South Russia has assumed proportions of which Western Europe is not yet aware.  He reached Elizabethgrad during the recent disturbances and gathered the particulars he gave me from residents of that town and the neighbourhood.  He accounts for the scarcity of news from that part of Russia by the fact that the telegraph officials will not accept messages in any foreign language, while those written in Russian are revised by the censor prior to transmission.  

The post is scarcely a safer means of communication, there being at present a regular system of letter opening for foreign postal service.  My friend’s informants told him that the anti-Jewish movement in Russia is the work of the revolutionists.  They understand that it would be of no avail to appeal to an ignorant and bigotedly loyal peasantry on the grounds of political emancipation.   Ivan Ivanovitch knows little and is careless about Constitutions and administrative reform.  It would be worse than useless to talk to him on such subjects.  The revolutionists have consequently, touched another chord, and have excited his religious fanaticism.  They have represented the Jew as the source of all the evils with which Russia is afflicted.  They are held up to popular reprobation as the assassins of the late Czar and Jessie Helfmann, the Jewess who was implicated, as having been the soul of the whole plot.  The Czar’s assassination happened on a day that is kept up festively by the Jews in Russia, and after the event they were charged with having made merry in anticipation of what was going to happen.  The object of the revolutionists is to create a popular rising, in which the troops would be called upon to defend the Jews against the Christians.  They anticipate that either the troops would, under such circumstances, refuse duty, or that the people would be so infuriated that a general rising would ensue.  The officers themselves apprehend the former contingency; but in either case the opportunity would be favourable for the revolutionists, and they would know how to turn it to account.  

The atrocities committed at Elizabethgrad, said my informant, must have been fearful to witness, as an officer who travelled a short distance with him and who was present at the time said he had seen things that sickened him to think of.  Neither women nor children were spared, and had not many of the Jews been armed a wholesale massacre would certainly have taken place.  At first it was proposed to burn the Jews’ houses; but it so happens that at Elizabethgrad they do not live in a distinct quarter of the town.  Their houses are not separate from those of the Christians, so the latter would have suffered from a conflagration.  It appears that at a small locality named Golta, a massacre of the Jews was actually on the point of commencing when the inhabitants of a neighbouring village called Olviopol came to the rescue and defended the Jews against their aggressors.

According to an evening telegram, there have also been excesses against the Jews in the Government of Kiev. The Globe of Monday contains the following comments upon the occurence;   The Jedenhetze, or Jew-baiting, which has lately disgraced Germany, unhappily is not confined to the Fatherland.  Our correspondence columns have lately borne witness to its existence in Egypt, where stories of the most atrocious cruelties perpetrated upon Christian youths find greedy believers. 

And now we have news of a fierce outbreak of anti-Jewish fanaticism in the South of Russia.  Telegrams from Odessa have already told us of the anti-Jewish riots that have broken out in a place called Elizavetgrad, and the details now arriving show that they were rather formidable disturbances.  We have no account of the origin of the troubles beyond the vague statement that they arose out of a dispute between some Christians and Jews.  A general fight followed and became serious when it was observed that revolver shots were fired from some Jewish Houses.  This led to an indiscriminate attack upon the houses and shops occupied by the Jews of the town and the destruction of property continued over a couple of days.  The fighting was only stopped by the submission of the Jews, who found themselves utterly beaten; but their acknowledgement of defeat did not save their property.  A general attack in which the original rioters were aided by peasants from the neighbouring villages eventuated in the sacking of the houses of the Jews, the breaking up of their furniture and the destruction of their goods. 

At first the efforts of the military and police to restore failed of success, though ultimately the riots were suppressed. The town of Elizavetgrad has a population of some 40,000 of whom the Jews comprise about one fourth and it is said that more than half the houses of those 10,000 Jews are completely ruined.  The destruction of property , fortunately was not accompanied by an equal loss of life, only one Jew having been killed, while not very many are wounded.   The fury with which the feeling of hatred to the Jews blazed forth among the townspeople who are Christians and their allies from the country is however a revelation as to the bitterness of feeling that was lying latent. 

Judenhetze would seem to be in the air in Russia as in Germany.  

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